Tuesday, January 13, 2009

The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson Celebrates Christmas DVD

This was a Christmas present given to me by my son Alex. In the past, Alex chose several Christmas albums (Oh Santa (Yep Roc), Gene Autry) to give to my on December 25th but instead chose a DVD on my Santa list.

My Santa list contained several DVD titles and several that I asked for were under the Christmas tree. I'm attempting to lose weight as a New Year's resolution (40 lbs. by my 40th birthday in June) and these will be used while exercising on the stationary bike or treadmill.

Back in September, I discovered this DVD would be hitting shelves in October. At first, I was pretty psyched. A full DVD full of vintage Christmas clips from the Mighty Carson Art Players and Johnny himself, I thought.

Last December, I posted a YouTube video that had a clip from his 15th Anniversary show that contained a pretty hilarious Christmas clip. My friend Stubbyfears informed in the comments that he had seen the DVD and wished there were more clips like the one I had posted.

Now I was full of trepidations - my wife said "too late" and on Christmas morning, the DVD was in my hands. The back of the DVD states "three classic shows" = good. The running time says "72 minutes" = not good.

The menu tells another tale - each three shows came from the decade of the 1980s (1984, 1987, 1989). Why nothing earlier? Two likely reasons:

1.) Nearly all of Johnny's work from 1962 to 1973 was never saved. TV network practices had engineers reusing early videotape for other programs.

2.) During his legendary battle with then-head of NBC Fred Silverman, Carson gained ownership of his show away from NBC in 1980. Any clips from 1973 and 1980 would be the property of the Peacock and cost a fortune to license.

With a roster of guest stars including Garry Shandling, Tony Bennett, Robin Williams, and the one and only Mr. Bob Hope stacked in its favor, how bad could this be?


Show 1 - 12/21/1984 - Guests: (NOT SHOWN), Garry Shandling, Manualist John Twomey

As the familiar strains of "Johnny's Theme" begins, we get a patch job for the introduction - a title card from the late 70s / early 80s, no Ed McMahon voice over, and random full frame clips of Carson as various characters.

This is totally different from the floating images intro of "The Tonight Show" that were used throughout the 1980s. Ed yells "Here's Johnny!" and we settle in for a Carson monologue.

After hearing several quick jokes tinged with Christmas, the editing fairies arrive, cutting out non-Christmas jokes from the monologue (the Highway Patrol, Californians, Mike Wallace, Prince Harry, and Hong Kong.). This happens not once nor twice - try four times! Sacrilege.

The original first guest on this show was Tony Bennett who sang three non-Christmas songs (even more money for licensing needed) and went to panel with Carson. Their talk wasn't too heavy on Christmas so his appearance was excised out - the reason for the edits in the monologue.

After Johnny's golf swing, we get our first skit - Carson as then-President Ronald Reagan reading "The Night Before Christmas"; "From out on the Rose Garden, there came such a din - I thought it was Mondale trying to break in". Very topical, very 1980s, very Christmas, pretty funny.

We skip ahead to Carson introducing the second guest Garry Shandling with actual hand claps from Tony Bennett - wonder if they paid extra for those. Shandling's routine and panel appearance is slightly flavored with Christmas but it remains intact - no edits.

What gives? Why slice Johnny's monologue and leave Garry's intact? Who made those decisions?

The final guest is manualist John Twomey who made several appearances with Carson over the years:

Twomey gives us priceless renditions of "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen", "White Christmas", "Santa Claus Is Coming To Town", and "Jingle Bells" using his hands. This is a study in reactions: Twomey's deadpan facial reaction, the audience reacting to the hilarious sounds, the occasional Carson reaction to both.

By far, the best thing from this particular show. This was Twomey's second to last appearance with Johnny and why he never recorded albums (especially Christmas) is beyond me.

Johnny comes back to wish everyone a Merry Christmas at the end (no goodbyes to the panel), we cut immediately to black and the main menu appears.

Show 2 - 12/18/87 - Guests: Robin Williams, Bob Hope, Tony Bennett

We get the same made-for-DVD open as described above but surprise! We actually get a full, unedited monologue from Carson chock full of 1980s references (Jim & Tammy, Jessica Hahn, Madonna & Sean Penn's divorce) sprinkled with just enough Christmas.

According to the link above, Carson followed this monologue with some material read from his desk - a master pre-Christmas checklist to help you as a public service. Sadly, it isn't included on the DVD (perhaps to avoid paying the writers who came up with the gags).

Johnny introduces Robin Williams who comes out to plug "Good Morning, Vietnam" and takes over the stage like only he can. This appearance / rant remains intact as well and is excruciatingly funny or painful depending on who you talk to. I was surprised they left it untouched (including showing the clip from "GM, V").

After the commercial break, Johnny introduces the next guest who's on the show to plug "Bob Hope's Christmas Show: A Snow Job In Florida". Bob Hope 2nd billed?

As "Thanks For The Memories" starts, Bob saunters out with a mild look of disgust. But as the audience rises to its feet (presumably) and yells its approval, Bob's get the wickedest grin on his face as if to say "Second slot or not, I still can win the hearts and minds of the audience".

Hope thanks Johnny for the spot (Hope on Robin Williams: "He's wild, isn't he?") and gives a series of one word answers to questions put to him by Johnny - punishment for the second spot. Hope comes to life now and then (especially when Robin butts in with a joke) but it's an amazing display of body language - fiddling with his coat, squirming in his chair, occasionally looking at Johnny.

Apparently, the DVD compilers decided to cut out Hope's clip from his special (if you hear a noise, that's Bob rolling over in his mausoleum) and we go directly into Johnny introducing Tony Bennett. Carson holds up an actual LP of "Bennett: Berlin" and we're treated with a great slow version of "White Christmas" backed by the Ralph Sharon Trio.

Tony gets over to Johnny at the desk but we fade to black for commercial. Upon returning, Johnny thanks Tony, Bob (who awakens to make sure Johnny gets the time right for his special), and Robin snaps off several more jokes.

The show ends with Doc Severinsen & The Tonight Show Band playing "Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas". With Doc on lead trumpet a la Harry James, it's a great rendition as the credits roll. But like the rest of the show, it's abbreviated - time ran out and the song goes to black as well.

It's far better than show one and the most complete show on the DVD.

Show 3 - 12/15/1989 - Guests: (NOT SHOWN), Kevin Meaney, (NOT SHOWN)

Another edited monologue to start. Considering it's length, should it even be called a monologue? One discussion with Doc over the pronunciation of "poinsettia", and three jokes. Why the jokes about getting into the spirit of Christmas in California were edited, who knows.

If you click on the link above, you'll see the entire rundown of this particular show from Carson's own website. Upon learning that a segment with Johnny at the desk involving celebrity Christmas albums was removed irritates me to no end.

Instead, we are serenaded by the Mighty Carson Art Players aka The NBC Yuletide Carolers (Johnny, Ed, Doc). Dressed in Victorian costumes, they sing a specially written version "The Twelve Days Of Christmas":

"On the second day of Christmas, my true love TOOK from me, two swimming pools, and the house in the hills of Beverly". Considering there were six divorces between the three (Johnny 3, Ed 2, Doc 1), this topic was always a good source of humor over the years on "The Tonight Show" - it's still funny.

The first guest of the night was Bob Hope, who was there plugging his 1989 Christmas special entitled "Bob Hope's Christmas Special from Waikoloa, Hawaii" ("Hey, how 'bout those hula dancers, aren't they somethin'?). However, his entire appearance disappears from the DVD. Retribution?

We get comedian Kevin Meaney's complete comedy routine (lightly flavored with Christmas) that is painfully unfunny until he imitates Johnny Mathis & Ethel Merman dueting on "Winter Wonderland". After all, this IS a Christmas DVD and there should be some of that here, huh?

Johnny's final guest of the night was actress Liv Ullman. Appearing on the show to plug her latest film "The Rose Garden", apparently nothing of her time spent on the couch next to Johnny was Christmas related. She was left off the DVD as well.

What's left is the worst hacked show on the DVD and a sad way to end the whole thing.

Overall, a major disappointment. I wonder if Johnny would have been happy with this finished product or to even have his name associated with it. Looking at some of the reviews at Amazon.com, apparently quite a few people agree with me.

Granted, on a DVD like this, not every clearance could be gotten. Was Liv Ullman even contacted about this? Figure in licensing the footage itself from Carson, royalties for performers and now writers, music licensing, and production / distribution costs and you can see why the editing fairies did what they did.

What makes this worst is the amount of material that should have been included and left out. Thanks to YouTube, we may see some of it (like the aforementioned clip I posted in December). I'm not asking for every monologue joke that contains Christmas, but if there is something related to it (the missing skits I pointed out above), it certainly merits consideration.

The end result only hurts us - the people paying money to see it. Do yourself a favor - don't buy this. Don't consider downloading this. Don't rent this from Netflix. Wait until it comes to your local library and check it out for free. If you pay anything more than that, you're going to get ripped off.

This was a gift from my son and the major hug we shared after I opened it will be treasured for years to come. The DVD will gather some major dust.

Even the allure of seeing Johnny again at Christmas and the comedy contained in this DVD in future years will be tarnished because of the "snow job" (to borrow a phrase from Mr. Hope) they gave us on this digital cookie. Make that cookie crumb.



stubbysfears said...

I have to say I both agree with you completely...

and disagree with you, at least a little bit.

I miss Johnny. Any biscuit of the Tonight Show starring Johnny Carson, especially with a Christmas tie-in, is worth what I paid for it. I wouldn't pay $60 for this, nor even $20, but for the $10 I did pay, I can't say I didn't get my money's worth. The mastering or re-mastering was exceptional (that's a better picture than you could get in the 80s--even with cable). And it's Johnny!

Now...if someone wants to send me some complete Johnny Carson episodes on DVD (free of course), I'll happily revise my opinion. I can be bought. ;-)

But I'll add a note to NBC--if they, indeed, own the rights to the older stuff..........You could make such a killing!

CaptainOT said...

Stubby - Johnny was the gold standard of late-night talk shows and the handling of his material deserves the same status.

If this said "selected highlights" on the packaging, I might have accepted it for what it was.

But to declare "three classic shows" and giving us edited highlights from each is totally unfair and unacceptable to Johnny's legacy.


stubbysfears said...

I guess our expectations were different.

I don't think of Johnny as "the gold standard of late-night talk shows". I think of Johnny as a life-long friend who was with me from my earliest years, through my formative years, through my college years, and well into adulthood. A life-long friend who passed away way too soon. That's how I think of Johnny. What price would you put on seeing such a friend again, even if the conditions of that reunion were not ideal?

And, in fairness, the pre-release advertising was pretty clear on what the dvd was and was not. Plus, it's likely to be relegated to the $5 bin, now that it's initial release season is over.

Creedmoor said...

"He's wild, isn't he?"

This alone makes it a must own, but I am highly indignant over the loss of the clip, darlin'.

I recently went back and watched some of the "best of" DVDs. Not unlike "Laugh In," time has not been kind to Johnny. Bob Hope is so bad I can laugh at him. The more Carson I watched, the more I embraced my Dick Cavett collections. Guys like Steve Allen and Jonathan Winters were creative geniuses. Not unlike Hope, Carson had a battalion of writers. In the pre-cable era, people watched because there was no real competition. Joey Bishop? Oofa! Off screen, I think of Johnny as a violent, womanizing, ill-tempered wife beater who gave David Letterman the old fingeroo.

stubbysfears said...

Allen and Winters were geniuses but Dick Cavett is, was, and forever shall be a complete bore. He did have fascinating guests, but you'd watch his show just wishing Cavett would leave and stop bringing things to a roaring halt.

Creedmoor said...

He wasn't a comedian or an entertainer for that matter. He was middle America's worst nightmare: An intellectual. He knew his subjects first hand, not from information culled by a crack research team. His interviews with Woody Allen, Groucho and Jack Benny are astounding. I've literally seen hundreds of interviews with Jerry Lewis and I'd put DC's in the top twenty. I love the guy, but I can understand your stand-offishness.

Wasn't there someone other than Dick and Joey that went up against Johnny in the early to mid 70s? Not London Lee, but someone equally noxious.

And Jonathan Winters still is a genius.

CaptainOT said...

Stubby - I wanted this DVD because of Carson - the video is clear, the comedy is good, but it's incomplete.

Disappointing is the best word for it.

Creedmoor - David Frost had his own show for a while in the 1970s - Carson even appeared on it.

Cavett to Jack Benny: Do you have life insurance?

Benny: LIFE INSURANCE? Let me put it this way - if I go, THEY go!

FYI - Cavett is the only late night talk show host to have a guest DIE during a taping:


And no one can hold a candle to Jonathan Winters.


stubbysfears said...

"He wasn't a comedian or an entertainer for that matter. He was middle America's worst nightmare: An intellectual."

This is the Dennis Miller defense--the one that says I'm brilliant and everybody who doesn't get me is stupid.

Tons of folks have done the talk show thing. I'm not that good at placing eras (Frost was the name I first thought of for 70s, Geraldo Rivera the second), but you've got everyone from Morey Amsterdam (before my time) to Danny Bonaduce.

If you were to remove the guests from the equation and grade talk show hosts strictly on their own abilities--to entertain, to interview, to make bad things work and good things timeless--Steve Allen's probably at the top of the list, with Johnny second, then Mike Douglas.

Cavett--the only talk show host I know of to fail on 3 networks (ABC--twice, CBS and USA) ranks somewhere near the bottom, fighting it out with Chevy Chase and Charles Grodin. Like I said, he had great guests and I like him as a person (what I know of him), but he had no business hosting a talk show.

If you gave Johnny an hour where every guest cancelled at the last moment, you'd end up with a priceless hour of entertainment. Johnny would make it work. And no team of writers and researchers could do that for him. In the same situation, Cavett would sit in silence, checking his watch periodically. Yeah, that's entertainment.

ROBCAN said...

Does anyone know when Johnny, Ed and Doc were singing Christmas carols when the snow started to fall?

Is it on one of the DVD collections because I cant find it, and its not on the "Johnny Carson Celebrates Christmas" DVD or the "Christmas With Friends" episode from 1984.

Thanks - ROB.